With the various Occupy Wall Street demonstrations, talk of economic and social fairness is in the air. Demonstrators are complaining about the vast inequalities in wealth and political influence between the rich 1 percent or so and the remaining 99 percent.
Are the complaints morally legitimate? A key point must be made. Wealth (and influence) inequality per se does not mean unfairness. One analogy is the classroom. Inequality of grades does not imply unfairness. How those grades are acquired matters.
Similarly, there can be unequal, yet fair, wealth distributions. How the wealth inequalities are arrived at matters. If obtained through reasonably equal social opportunities (and no cheating), then wealth inequalities might well be fair.
Are wealth inequalities in the United States obtained through a reasonably equal opportunity process?
Unfortunately the answer is no. Wealthier kids start off with numerous advantages — in terms of nutrition, safety, emotional support, intellectual stimulation, access to better schools, etc. Not by accident, most wealthy kids end up wealthy adults, and most poorer kids end up poorer adults.
Reducing this opportunities gap is possible within a free-market setting. A free market produces winners and losers— and wealthier and poorer classes. Yet if the competition is initially fair, there will be little cause for indignation. To make the competition fair, some of a free-market system’s wealth must go to create and maintain the equal opportunity conditions for each generation of children.
As the philosopher John Rawls put it, a key way of telling if a social wealth gap is fair is to see if it is better at helping the worst off than alternative social arrangements. If a wealth gap is the best way of helping the worst off, then that wealth gap is fair (even if large).
Clearly the current wealth inequalities in this country do not fare well on Rawls’ test. Our wealth gap does not sufficiently help the worst off, in terms of opportunities. The wealth gaps in countries like Canada or Norway do much better. Social mobility is currently much greater in those countries.
Can our current partial free-market system improve these equal-access conditions? Sure, but large interests stand in the way. These improvements are at the heart of what the protesters want. They may lash out at obscene symptoms of unfairness — such as the rich co-opting government to bail out “too big too fail” investments, or GE’s paying few if any taxes, or huge spending on crazy wars. But these are only symptoms and tipping points.
Carlo Filice is chairman of the Philosophy Department at Geneseo State College in New York.